Jasmine Thai is one of the few restaurants I knew well before I was appointed designated eater. I love Thai cuisine, and it’s the oldest Thai restaurant in the area, having opened in 1993.
More importantly, it’s a five-minute drive from my house. As such it has served as emergency sustenance provider, when cooking plans are foiled by fate, and as argument-ender, when parties must compromise on the course of an evening.
Over the decades, my meals there have had their ups and downs, including an evening about five years ago when I walked out rather than persist in my efforts to order food from a unflaggable server. Recent years have seen a renaissance, though. My most recent meal there, late last month, was another resounding success, so I feel confident recommending it as one of the best Thai places in town.
I always start with the mee krob ($4.95), a dish of crispy, wok-fired noodles that pack the salty caramel pleasures of Cracker Jacks in an Asian appetizer. There’s a few slices of chicken, shrimp and bean sprouts, but the crunchy fried noodles with a whiff of burnt sugar are the main attraction.
Another standout appetizer, guilty-pleasure class, is the stuffed chicken wing ($7.95). It’s essentially an Asian-spiced pork meatball crammed into a boned-out chicken wing of alarming size, then battered, fried and sliced. Given its richness, sharing it four ways seemed best.
Tom yum soup with shrimp ($3.95), hot-and-sour lemongrass broth with mushrooms, cilantro and fried chile flakes, was pungent and bracingly spicy, though a bit acidic for my taste. Tom kha ($3.75), coconut milk soup with chicken, was vibrant with gingerlike galangal. Both avoided the oversweetening that can plague Thai menus.
The yum beef salad ($11.25), thinly sliced grilled beef in a chile-lime sauce with sliced cucumber, tomato wedges, cilantro and red onion, was well-balanced and sparsely sauced, with plenty of ruddy, medium-rare beef.
Yum seafood ($14.95) was a similar warm, tangy salad, showcasing scallops, squid, mussels and shrimp. Often multispecies dishes are unevenly cooked, but each bite of seafood was tender, with accents of shaved red onion and cilantro.
The bigger dishes delivered a fresh set of satisfactions. Pick a protein from tofu, meats ($11.55-$12.95) or seafood ($15.95), and your preferred preparation. Everything was ordered medium, arriving with a heat-augmenting dusting of ground chile. I stirred most of it in, and was rewarded with a lingering cayenne hum. As Duff’s would say, medium is hot.
Unlike Thai places that present coconut curry as a souplike dish, the Panang curry with pork was more like an open-faced hot sandwich, with thicker, spice-laden gravy on plentiful slices of tender pork, with a supporting cast of broccoli, carrot and bell pepper.
Another standout was prig khing, ginger paste stir-fried with green beans and chicken, for a dish with subtle ginger burn smoothed out with a note of sweetness. Pad see ew, the Thai dish of wide rice noodles stir-fried with sweet soy, eggs and Chinese broccoli called Bangkok Pasta here, is a perennial favorite for its easy-to-like mild and sweet noodles with a breath of wok smoke.
Siam squid ($14.95) drenched crisply fried squid in a tangy sweet-sour tamarind sauce and a mixture of bell pepper, onion and broccoli. The dish was addictive even though it was sweet as candy.
Gapow fried rice with chile-garlic paste, ordered hot, was more flavorful than fiery, a decently ungreasy version. But it lacked the advertised basil that can give this dish an intoxicating aroma.
Pra lad prig, fried whole fish ($19.99) in tamarind garlic sauce, was a solid version. The filets had been incised before frying for easy removal, but the sauce didn’t have the wok-kissed flavor I prefer.
Service was brisk and professional, promptly watering us and providing selections from the restaurant’s small bottled beer and wine list. Our flock of dishes emerged from the kitchen in neat waves.
Dessert was mango or coconut ice cream with or without fried banana coins in wonton wrappers ($4.95, $3.95), competent but skippable.
What Jasmine does best is bring waves of Thai flavor – across noodles, salads, curries and stir-fries – with the speed and efficiency of a well-run diner. Prices are inexpensive, especially the lunch specials available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those factors add up to above-average satisfaction.
I can’t say Jasmine has taken my No. 1 Thai spot, however. Hamburg’s Cozy Thai exhibited finer cooking overall, with brighter flavors, a swoonful eggplant special and mango sticky rice.
But Jasmine is good enough, and close enough, that when I think of Thai food, Hamburg suddenly seems so far away.
Jasmine Thai - 8 plates (out of 10)
Oldest Thai restaurant in the area delivers resonant flavors, swift service
WHERE: 1330 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda (838-3011)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
PRICE RANGE: Lunch combos, $7.75-$8.95; appetizers, $3.75-8.95; salads and noodles, $8.50-$15.95; entrees, $11.75-$19.99.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.